Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Sort of Mission Statement

I wish I had the language when I was a teenager to explain cultural capital. Then I would have been able to explain why this conversation bugged me as much as it did: Sitting in the classroom before AP English began, one kid asked this other one what kind of music he listened to, and he responded (if only the written word could convey the smugness of the tone but it can’t): “Oh you know, stuff like REM, The Psychedelic Furs, Camper Van Beethoven [this was at the end of the eighties, in case you hadn’t guessed], and The Velvet Underground. . . . Not The Digital Underground, The Velvet Underground.” Then there were some knowing nods exchanged between the two. I distinctly remember thinking: what is wrong with these motherfuckers?

What the silent nod expressed was their agreement that not only was The Velvet Underground vastly superior to The Digital Underground but that they themselves showed great wisdom in knowing the difference. Culture, specifically popular music, established the distinction between themselves and those who were unable to show the cultural competency to understand what separated the two bands. As Bourdieu points out, these cultural distinctions have historically mapped onto economic divisions so that “taste” becomes in modern capitalist society a code for class difference. So by affirming their good taste in music, these kids were also affirming their class superiority.

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that The Digital Underground is as good a band as The Velvet Underground because their respective discographies show that just isn’t true. But I will insist that “Humpty Dance” is as relevant as any song that The Velvet Underground performed and that it’s commercial success does not make it any less brilliant. Just as The Velvet Underground was able to divest its music of artificiality and pandering and replace it with self-conscious and ironic artistic posturing, so too did The Digital Underground make ironic the aggressive, masculinist rhetoric of Hip Hop. “Humpty Dance” knows what it’s doing, knows how to manipulate the form and tradition that it has inherited, and it invents something new and original out of its awareness.

The quick dismissal of bands like The Digital Underground is a knee-jerk response made by people who want to distance themselves from the class associations that come with commercial popular music—it’s popular because those dimwitted, unwashed masses don’t know any better. In my mind it is one of the purest forms of cultural distinction, made by people who would normally imagine themselves as siding with justice against power, with the disadvantaged against the privileged. The purpose of this blog is to reject the cultural distinctions between commercial popular music and the less popular, boutique-ish alternatives and the social hierarchies implicit in them. I try to treat seriously music that is usually dismissed out of hand, to understand how and why it speaks to its audience. And I try to not take myself too seriously while doing it. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Losing at Love

The next day I was to give a talk at Universidad Centroamericana on the theory of the novel and export agriculture, but as I sat looking at the jagged horizon of San Salvador from my room in the Hotel Capital, I was interested only in the clouds. They came over the ridges dark and heavy, a sharp contrast between their crepuscular grey and the tropical green of the land. They rolled over the irregular landscape full of intent; their gloomy, flashing hearts bordered by a bright silver. My windows were opened because I couldn’t stand the idea of sitting in an air conditioned room in El Salvador­­—the place where I was born and where I have often returned, always as a misplaced native. Through the open windows I could feel the rush of the wind as the storm arrived, the density of the air change as the sky dimmed and let loose. One minute I saw the clouds snaking over the hills and volcanoes and the next everything was darkened by rain or illuminated by the transitory enchantment of lighting.

Love approaches in the same way: you see it coming on the horizon, recognize its danger but feel comforted by the distance, then all of a sudden you are in it. As much as love elevates you, as much as it makes you savor life for the first time all over again, love is also desperation and tragedy. Nothing wounds and sickens like love. Nothing makes you feel as lonely and forlorn, fills you with so much anguish and mourning. Few songs capture this sensibility as well as PJ Harvey’s “Desperate Kingdom of Love.” Her voice is pained, the guitar lonesome. The song renders the hollowness that accompanies those late hours of pining, the emptiness of insecurity that is love’s religion. And God forbid that your love is not enough to keep someone. Maybe nothing has done more for art! My most favorite song, Pedro Infante’s “Historia de un amor,” deals with just this. (The greatest song ever, ever, ever!)

Like that thunderstorm that I saw coming over the hills, the intensity that makes falling in love like nothing else is something that comes and goes. It might be my own failing—it probably is—but to me love has always been a transitory, impermanent thing. That exquisite pain that makes love what it is leaves and all you are left with is the requiem of everyday life. A relationship is what’s left over after love dissipates into routine, satisfaction, and fear of being alone. Love is ALWAYS a losing proposition.

You see why, then, Drake’s “Take Care” resonates with me. In particular, the way Rihanna’s chorus, when she emotes in a hopeless hush “I’ve loved and I’ve lost” rings true. I’ve learned recently that Rihanna’s section is a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s heartbreaking “I’ll Take Care of You,” which is itself a cover of a song by Bobby Bland. It doesn’t matter, Drake and Rihanna take us to the hunger and ecstasy and misery of love. The song’s syncopations are the irregular beating of the lovesick and sick of love heart.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Art, Doubt, Dread, Life

Those personal catastrophes that we can’t reconcile with ourselves despite the anguish they cause are the subject of much of serious modern art. Art returns over and over to the personal tragedies that remain with you, to the lacerations of the past that never heal, but with a resignation that no matter how much those events affect our lives they nonetheless seem to provide little meaning to them. People with metaphysical certainty, like those of integrated pre-modern and modern societies, understand the pain in their lives as part of a great chain of being. Tragedies are no less painful to them but that hurt is articulated into a higher order of existence that gives it significance. In such a condition, one is not alone with trauma. The traumatic, like all things seen and unseen, is part of a greater plan that while beyond the ken of human understanding is no less comforting for it. Most moderns live in a world whose paths are darkened by the doubt of metaphysical dread. Things happen, lives are lived and lost, happiness comes and goes, and all of it seems unmoored from any kind of providential scheme or transcendental structure. We feel things should happen for a reason, that there should be a meaning for why things happened in this order and not in a different one, but despite the belief that there should be meaning and the need for it, we recognize the possibility that it all might be indeed meaningless.

Serious art does not turn from that wretched truth. It faces the possibility of meaninglessness and explores it ruthlessly. It wanders through the empty rooms of life and describes their barrenness. It says: “Here there should be a bed, there a chair, and further a table, but instead there is nothing.” It describes the triviality of life as trivial, the aimless sorrow of living as aimless. But, as Luk√°cs writes, art says “And yet!” to life. It renders the doubt and insecurity but it poses some kind of transitory synthesis. It says: “Perhaps life is meaningless, but if there were meaning, this is what it would look like.” This is the ethical imperative of art, for serious art is always first and foremost ethical (the ethical nature of art does not depend on whether we agree with the ethics of a specific work). Art affects us because it shows us how life and the world could be otherwise, what the immanence of meaning would look like if it were a part of our lives. It describes the fragments of our lives and shows us, however provisionally and imperfectly, how those fragments could be something else.

Not all art is serious, however, and sometimes we don’t want the truth. Sometimes we want lies so that we can paper over the doubts and just keep living. At times we need an escape more than we need to be confronted with insecurities that we already know are there. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller,” sings Kelly Clarkson. Is this true? Who cares, really? Katy Perry sings: “Throw your sticks and your stones/Throw your bombs and your blows/But you’re not gonna break my soul.” That question is equally insignificant here. If you think about it long enough, you understand that these are triumphant slogans that only indirectly relate to life as it’s actually lived. But on occasion (and for some dummies, all the time) we don’t want to think about it too much; we just want to feel better.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Modernity and Youth

Fun.’s “We Are Young” is a pretty song that explores the ragged emotional edges of youthful indulgence. It’s dares you to not sing along, to not feel the elevation that comes with embracing your mistakes, to not have your heart raised by reminiscing about the inconsequential failures that appear heroic both for their smallness and by the passage of time. It asks you­­—like an old, nonjudgmental friend—to remember that time when that person broke your heart and you went on a bender that ended up with you embarrassing yourself around people you barely knew. And whatever happened to that person? And why did it matter so much at the time? And why is it so hard to learn those lessons? As someone who has always gravitated toward the cheap romanticism of excessive emotion and to careless people whiling away late nights in dimly lit places, and who feels a deep and abiding distaste for utilitarian Protestant sobriety, believe me, this attitude appeals to me intensely.

Youth. It’s worth reprising here Moretti’s argument regarding its meaning. Youth is the symbolic form of modernity. If in the classic epic the hero is a mature man, the typical hero of Western culture from the end of the eighteenth century on is young. Because modernity’s radical transformation of social relationships both opened possibilities and generated fears, how better to represent the hopefulness and insecurities of the new age but through the idea of youth? As a result of its ability to represent the dynamic nature of modernity and the instability that it generated, youth became the material sign of modernity. Youth, as Moretti puts it, is modernity’s “essence,” a symbol of the search for significance in the future rather than in the past. The idea of youth is particularly effective in representing a world in flux, a world set adrift on the violent tides of history and emerging into new possibilities. But youth not only represents the restlessness and instability of modernity, it also contains it symbolically, since, after all, we get old. To grow older and become a mature, stable, and well-socialized individual is the ideal endpoint of youth in the social imaginary of modernity.

My impatience with “We Are Young” relates to how it willingly embraces the social construction of youth. “Tonight,” the song says, is the time of youth. Meaning that to youth belong temporary mistakes and indiscretions. Maturity signifies solidity, formation, maturity. Youth is aimless, transient, inconsequential. Both of these statements are untrue. This is a stupid thing to say but it’s worth saying: the important things that happen to you when you are young are important and the unimportant things that happen to you when you are old are unimportant. Youth is not what happens to you before you start living. Perhaps the most aggravating version of this concept is the not-so-secret pride that some bourgeois kids take in being incompetent at basic life tasks. The privilege to be a fuck-up, safe in the knowledge that someone will take care of you, is grounded in the modern understanding of youth as a highly charged but largely unimportant stage of life. Youth is not the anteroom of life; it is simply the life of the young. (Again, this shit seems banal but I have no other way of putting it.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Transnational Contradictions

The transnational subject seems the primary agent of the present historical moment. That statement, true though it appears, nonetheless is fairly hollow. Immigrant laborers, disenfranchised lumpens working everywhere in the heartlands of capitalist modernity but invisible to the majority except when in need of scapegoats for what ails the body politic, are transnational subjects. So too are bourgeois “world citizens” who feel an affinity for faraway places, feel at home in “foreign” cultures, and are fluent in the cultural codes of modernity, whose vernacular is always consumer culture or mass media. (This is you and me, in case you hadn’t guessed.) These constituencies, whose worlds often overlap on opposite sides of the retail counter in the global marketplace, cannot really be analyzed in satisfactory terms through theoretical optics that apply to both of them at once. Yet they are both hailed at the same time by forms of popular music that reveal the aesthetic and socio-economic contradictions embodied by transnational subjectivity.

Manu Chao’s “Welcome to Tijuana,” for example, takes into account the experiences of subaltern transnational subjects. “Welcome to Tijuana/Tequila, sexo, marihuana/Welcome to Tijuana/Con el coyote no hay aduana,” he sings. Manu Chao uses Tijuana to symbolize the uneven economic conditions between first world surplus and third world poverty. Tijuana in this song is a space in which the rules of the modern order are suspended. But that suspension signifies different things to different people. To a first world tourist traveling south, Tijuana means being able to purchase the suspension of legal and moral norms. To an immigrant from the global south, Tijuana makes possible the clandestine evasion of geopolitical boundaries in search of a better life. Even while it takes into account subaltern experiences, “Welcome to Tijuana,” I think, presupposes a bourgeois transnational audience. The song’s uncompromising linguistic dexterity, its unblinking realism, and its avant-garde musical structure limit its popular appeal. Let’s be real, this is the kind of shit university students dig the world over.

Shakira’s “Addicted to You” I hear on Latino commercial radio all the time, however. I have to say that as much as I appreciate the critical impulse of Manu Chao’s music, the sense of social justice that pervades his work, his inventiveness, I think that Shakira’s song is in a sense much more democratic. Her work aims to reach a much broader audience: Latin Americans, Latinos in the U.S., and random white people. Granted it’s a fairly shallow kind of democracy, we’re really just talking about commercial demographics here. The four words of English in the song perfectly capture its transnational pandering. But its rhythms (awesome), its subject matter (totally relatable), and the unique lyrical quality of Shakira’s voice (foxy and not threatening) make this a song people want to listen to regardless of their social or political position.

So to return to the dilemma of transnational subjectivity, while Manu Chao’s music deals with a wider range of transnational experiences, its appeal is limited to a much narrower demographic than Shakira’s. Conversely, her song addresses the transnational experience only superficially but it appeals to a broad spectrum of transnational subjects from every level of society. Crap.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pop, Excess, Compulsion

The beauty of T-Rex’s “Buick Mackane” is how unbothered it is about being rich and self-indulgent. The whole thing lurches forward, pulled by the momentum of its own excess. The music is a baroque ensemble of decorative art, a busy and noisy layering of textures and timbres. As befitting a T-Rex song, the lyrics sound like what Futurist poetry would sound like if it were written by horny adolescent boys, a sophomoric sexualizing of technology: “Slider, Slider/You’re just a sexual glider/You’re just a sexual glider/Be my plane in the rain.” “Buick Mackane” is a heavy yet trivial mess and if you don’t love it then you can’t possibly love rock and roll. It’s a perfect song by a band I love without reservations. Its perfections are those of rock and roll: it is unapologetically extravagant within the terms it sets for itself.

A similar account obtains for The Bee Gees. Their catalog is a murderer’s row of incredibly melodic and unashamedly sentimental hits. But it’s the way in which they throw themselves into the basest of affect with those falsettos! I love them so much that it’s difficult to decide which song to single out for discussion. “Too Much Heaven” perhaps exemplifies what I’m getting at here. Listen to the how the triteness of the lyrics is made completely irrelevant by the sincerity of the harmonies at the song’s beginning. Then Barry Gibb takes over. His voice rises above the already high peaks and it punctuates the song throughout. In their own way, The Bee Gees are every bit as extravagant as T-Rex, but their extravagance is in a sort of masculine embrace of cultural terms usually coded as feminine, if that makes sense.

We find the same aesthetics of excess, which are so crucial to much of great pop music, in Lana del Rey’s “Video Games.” Her voice, evocative without being strong, haunting without carrying a lot of weight, saturates the song. In important ways, the musicality of the song is completely secondary to her voice. Sure, there are instruments present but they seem to be there only to keep the singer’s voice from getting too lonely. The song is Spartan, dressed down, empty almost. Only the voice, foregrounded with the blind vanity of the absolutely self-assured, creates the canvas of the song. The musical form of the song differs starkly, however, from its lyrics, which are about the negation of the self for the other that sometimes accompanies intense relationships. “It’s you; it’s you/It’s all for you/Everything I do,” she sings and you can’t help but believe her. Fascinating contrast this, “Video Games” obsesses about the self in its musical structure and obsesses about the other in its lyrical structure. This doubling of compulsive emotion is what gives the song its resonance. It spares no feeling. It allows you to be completely self-absorbed while at the same time it allows you to lose yourself in infatuation. Its excessive, extravagant emotional charge first turns inward and then it turns to everything else.